System76 New Server Drop (CUDA Power!)

Introducing the IBex Pro from System76! (Server Buy/Design Page)

If you are in the market for a server that is all about the raw high computational power, this is a prime choice. Current build options at the time of this post offer in terms of CPU 44Cores, 88Threads, 1.5Tb of RAM and can support up to 8 Nvidia Tesla K80’s for just under 40,000 CUDA cores. There is also M series and P series Tesla options as well. In terms of storage you do have M.2 NVMe capability and 8×2.5″ drive bays in the front. The stock configuration also comes with SFP+ Dual Port 10Gb Ethernet connectivity. For me I only see this kind of system applying to a limited crowd. The first things that come to mind would be adding something like this to a server farm, if that be raw computations or rendering, or if you would want to host a box like this and rent out extra cycles. If that be for a specific use case or something else like community computing for community projects like Folding@Home as an example. The point is, even if you max out the configuration options in the designer, there are a limited number of people or organizations that would have the money for a box like this and even then, setting it up with that much horsepower is for unique situations. The average user wouldn’t know what to do with all of that power even if they were sitting on almost $100,000 bucks to drop for a maxed out box like this. Still nice to see this system being offered with CUDA focused options.

My Ubuntu Relationship and Our Future

I have wanted to write about this for a while now. My experience with Ubuntu, how far it has come in about 10 years and what it is capable of. Starting around 10 years ago my first exposure to this distribution (distro) was back in 2006 and 2007. At this time the current releases were 6.10 (edgy) and 7.04 (feisty). Since Ubuntu was rather new back then it didn’t have the massive following it has now. It was still on a rapid incline but the density of the user base then is not even close to what it is today. Due to the smaller community the distro wasn’t refined as well and was a bit more difficulty to use with less documentation available.

When Ubuntu was first released you could see it as having Debian roots with tweaks to create a distro that the developers envisioned. This is similar to how many other distros before it were brought into existence. The creators have a vision for the distro they want or to design one that satisfies the needs of other people. In some cases a distro could be made for a individual person or a small community but that’s a topic for another time. As of now Ubuntu feels like its own flavor of Linux. I understand that the core is Debian but considering how much has changed and the alterations made up to current day, it no longer feels like a “raw” Debain based distro to me.

Back when I first started using Ubuntu I would run into installation issues from time to time. The reason for these issues varied from system to system. About 70% of the time it was a hardware issue. Being about 9 years ago it would come down to a driver or compatibility problem. The hardware problems could have been anything from booting the LiveCD, seeing the internal hard drive(s), NICs, and more. The last 30% of the issues were on the Ubuntu side. I can’t recall what some of the exact issues and solutions were but it usually could be solved with some digging and experimenting. This is where a large “contributing” community, massive troubleshooting databases and a higher user population comes to the rescue. Ubuntu being new to the block wasn’t the only explanation for issues but it did add to the difficulties. After a while I started to loose interest in Ubuntu and started to fall behind in staying updated with the latest news and changes relating to it. The software issues was not the biggest problem in my eyes however.

The biggest turn off for me came later down the line when Canonical started doing things that were not disclosed to the end user and was in my mind just plain shady. I am not going to go into too much detail about these issues right now. If you do a few quick searches online you will see what I am talking about. These issues with Canonical put a bad taste in many mouths when they were discovered. Some jumped ship and swore off Ubuntu all together. I was part of that group. Since then they have cleaned up their act and they have begun to do things correctly. So after all this time I have decided to give them a try once more. A factor that aided in that decision was the purchase of a System76 Gazelle laptop that came with Ubuntu 16.04.1 pre-installed. Since it came with it already loaded I figured why not give it another go. It has only been about a decade.

So here we are. It has been about 9 years since I really used this distro as my daily driver. I felt like it was time to give it another shot and leaving it pre-installed on the laptop was a way for me to gauge how the average consumer would experience Linux if they were to buy a system like this. For someone like me who is a power user I am trying to go through this experience with the mindset of the average user. I am pleased to say that it has been very enjoyable so far. In terms of problems I have not had any critical problems. With the minor ones I did experience they were straight forward enough and there was a vast amount of online resources with solutions to the issues that the inexperienced user could find easily.

Compared to the desktop interface choices in the older Ubuntu days it now ships with their interface called Unity by default. You are by no means locked into Unity. You can install other desktop environments at will if the default isn’t to your liking. One thing to note with the latest version of Ubuntu is that Unity is vastly more reliable. In past releases it was about as useful as a printer that chews through ink. When it needs to work at a crucial moment it fails you horribly. Thankfully that isn’t the case anymore. That is my experience with it so far however. Unity in general just looks a lot nicer and is more along the lines of what the average user would expect from a modern computing experience. I personally prefer lightweight desktop environments and a minimal configuration. Resource usage is vital to me for what I do in my day to day computing. The consumer on the other hand could care less if the OS and the environment together took up a quarter to a half of the memory on a lower or medium tier system.

Over the years Ubuntu has become widely accepted by some consumers, power users, and companies for their server solutions. Since it is so popular that gives it the potential to change the desktop market. Am I saying that it will surpass Microsoft and Apple on the desktop? Absolutely not. Take for example the System76 laptop I am using to write this post right now. The fact that Ubuntu came pre-installed is the reason I am giving Ubuntu another go. Yes I could install a different distro if I wanted to. The reason Linux has not excelled on the desktop is because not many companies out there offer it pre-installed. If those companied did it could shift the percentage of desktops running a Linux Operating System compared to Windows or OSX. It would not change over night but its a massive start. Android is a huge example of this. Lets just for argument sake say that people could install the Android OS easily onto a iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod) device. Would the Android platform still have the success it has now? Not at all. Having Linux as the default OS is the key. Ubuntu has the power to make that happen with its massive community, fan base, and ease of use. Every day that goes by Linux becomes easier and easier to use. This also includes being more seamless to the end user. When it comes to all the Linux distros that could help shift the tide Ubuntu is one of the very few at the forefront of this opportunity.

It’s because of all this that Ubuntu is beginning to appeal to me once again. I am not the guy that wants to see the demise of Microsoft and Apple like some people out there. All platforms have their strengths/weaknesses and a place in our computing ecosystem(s). All of this considered I have to ask myself if I am at the point that I can recommend Ubuntu like I used to in the past. As of right now I would likely recommend Ubuntu to others. Any distro has the possibility to blow up and then fade away. In the case of Ubuntu it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. All of the changes and time away has swayed me back but I am not 100% sure that it will be my daily driver for multiple years. We will just have to see.

System76 Gazelle, A mobile computing Home Run ?

System76_logo_2015Image Provided by System76 (http://system76.com/)

      If you are reading this then chances are you already know of System76 and what they provide. If not, here is a quick note about this wonderful company. System76 sells computer hardware for laptops, desktops and servers that is purpose built for the Linux operating system. They allow you to pick from multiple solutions and customize it with the hardware that meets your needs. When you view their site you can see they have a “maker” style fell to bring out the creativity in others. When it comes to the operating system that is pre-installed on their systems they have chosen to go with Ubuntu Desktop or Ubuntu Server. Some of you may be asking why would they go with Ubuntu? The answer to that question is really quite simple. They want to focus their efforts on one distribution. While their hardware can work with other flavors of Linux it prevents having a ludicrous amount of OS choices from the start that may put off the average consumer. What these people are doing could put a dent in Microsoft/Apple and give the consumer a solution that lets them experience what freedom in the computing world is really like .

      Now, when the Gazelle system arrived at my front door I was expecting this to be just another system. Right from the start I could see the extra effort that is put into this product starting with the shipping box. The outside is printed with the System76 company name and the internal walls are illustrated with drawings on a graph paper design depicting that “maker” style community that this company relates to. On top of the wonderful packaging you also get a few freebies thrown in as well. You will find in an included envelope some stickers, a Thank You/Welcome note from System76 and something else I will not talk about just to prevent spoiling everything. As for how the laptop and power supply is shipped, it’s the standard tension plastic to keep things firmly secure and safe in transit.

      When I ordered this system I choose to go with the Intel i7-6700HQ (4-core, 8-thread) processors. I decided I would upgrade the Memory and add a M.2 NMVe SSD myself later. At the time of this first look review the NVMe SSD has been installed, the original Hard Drive removed and have yet to add the additional Memory. I contacted System76 support to check with them on the finer details before deciding what the M.2 SSD and Memory upgrades would be for compatibility reasons. They were very quick to respond and saved me a return headache since I was planning on going with a DDR3L (low-voltage) upgrade kit only to be informed that the system will not recognize DDR3L. Thanks for that.

      Once I unboxed the system I found it to be very light in term of weight. The Gazelle has a “brushed metal” like look on the plastic that is very slick and sharp looking. The plastics used to house the system is good and does not feel overly cheap. I also find it does not attract finger prints very easily which I know is a huge plus for many people. Already after a few days of use it feels like the case will hold up for some time. There is some slight display flex however when applying a torque on the screen housing. It is a minor amount of flex and nothing to be worried about. I do not see this becoming a issue with day to day use. When it comes to heat there is a bit that comes through the touchpad since the WiFi adapter and NVMe SSD drive are right behind it. This is not a negative in my book. It is a thin mobile computer and heat is going to be a factor regardless so I can’t fault them for that. After a good solid look over it was time to get started.

      I found the installation of the M.2 SSD, Hard Drive removal and getting the UEFI/BIOS out of secure boot to be extremely easy. When I took the bottom panel off to make the hardware changes I was quite amazed. With most laptop manufactures they make it difficult to change anything. After removing the bottom panel off the Gazelle I was pleased to see everything was right there and very easy to access. Even the CMOS battery was easy to get to and not soldered to the board in any way. Major brownie points there. After the quick hardware swap I was ready to install Ubuntu 16.04.1.

      During the install process I decided to configure the OS like I would any of my desktop systems. I did run into a slight issue during the install. When partitioning the SSD I could not get Ubuntu to install with a LUKS encryption filesystem for the life of me. Now I have no idea if this is a software issue on Ubuntu or the System76 hardware. For me at the moment it was not super important. I went through the install process again with just some basic custom options and thats how I am running the system now. Once I booted into the OS for the first time getting the System76 Drive installed is very easy. I added the PPA via the command-line, went through the driver install and rebooted. It is as simple as that. Over the past few days I have been installing software, setting up security, and just making myself at home.

      My experience has been great so far. When it comes to the screen itself the brightness level range is solid and has some decent off-angle viewing. While the colors do dim slightly with a minute amount of distortion it’s still perfectly fine for sharing content with others. In terms of the keyboard it took me a little bit of time to get use to. What keyboard doesn’t? While having a backlit keyboard for a system in this price range would be a massive plus, it is something I do not need for my daily computing. However some people may think otherwise. I also tried listening to music via the on-board speakers as well. To me they are a bit dull and the volume levels are decent. If you plan to listen to audio you should be using headphones anyways. For me its about battery savings so on-board speakers are not vital. When it comes to the built-in camera and microphone they are what I expect for a system like this. I did find there is a bit more noise in the microphone feed then I would like. Not sure if this is due to the microphone itself or the sound controller Systme76 has chosen to use but it could be corrected slightly through software.

      The WiFi adapter, NVMe SSD speed and CPU performance in this system is very solid. I was worried that the stock cooling system of the Gazelle wouldn’t be able to handle the 8 thread i7-6700HQ at full tilt but it does. The Gazelle does have a little trick to help under high load. When you use the function key in combo with the number 1 key you can override the automatic fan curve and max the fan RPM. With the auto fan curve it will hover around 50 degrees celcus under medium load and about 35-40 degrees with the full RPM override. I highly doubt this is only on the Gazelle so check your systems documentation. As for the WiFi and NVMe drive they do slow down as they become heat soaked over time but not by much. As I said before if the heat starts being an issue, up the speed of the cooler for a few minuets. I got excellent performance for the NVMe SSD. What I went with was a Samsung 256Gb 950 Pro. For a simple synthetic test it achieved an average of 1.2G/sec Write speed and 10.8G/s read speed on a 4Gb file. Keep in mind this is not a real world test but is still very impressive.

      So far I am very happy with this system and would like to write more but that will come in the 4 month look back review. The last few things to cover are the price and the average user. In terms of price it’s not the cheapest thing on the market. Ordering the Gazelle with the i7-6700HQ, 2 year Warranty, 3-day rush assembly, tax and shipping came out to about $1,100. Keep in mind this does not include the cost of the 256G NVMe Drive and 16Gb Memory upgrades I am getting for it which comes to about $200 for the drive and about $65 for the Memory. I know price is a huge factor for many so again it’s not cheap but for a virtually flawless experience its been worth it for me personally. As for the average user I could see them having a solid experience but the downside being the cost for entry is a bit high. Now system76 does make cheaper models but again this is the Gazelle we are talking about. The average user will want to order the system how they want it to be from day one to prevent headaches with hardware upgrades in the future.

      When it comes to the Gazelle, could I recommend this (or other hardware) to other Linux users or new users in general? I would have to say “maybe”. While the Gazelle is not perfect, it is still a great system and I have enjoyed the experience so far. I require additional use time before I can give a solid answer. The look back review will most likely be out by the end of the year once this semester is over. At that time I will have found any potential problems, the memory will have been upgraded to the full 16Gb, more refinement on the pros/cons and a clear suggestion.

      Also I would like to give a shout-out to the people at the System76 Denver Colorado HQ Office. I got the chance to go there and meet them in person and get to use the Gazelle before my purchase. They are amazing people, wonderful atmosphere and welcome people in the area if you would like to stop by. Since their systems are not really carried in big-box stores, they encourage visitors and I highly recommend to stop by.

We have seen Twitch Plays .. How about Installs ?

We have seen things like this before. Pokemon for example. Having everyone in chat submit a valid command and the majority after X amount of time is executed. This one however, is a little bit different. The goal for Twitch Installs right now it to have the chat install a functional Arch OS with a few milestones thrown in as well. Things as simple as creating a “hello world” script to being able to get a Desktop Environment going and pull up its own stream. If you want to kill some time just to watch or participate, you can find the stream here. They have had a rough start with some bugs, dealing with a BotNet and possible DDoS attacks. Its really worth a view.
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